I feel like I’m having trouble with handling relationships. I have a boyfriend right now, but from the beginning, I felt like I wasn’t ready for any of it. I feel very confused and unsure of my feelings; at one moment, I miss him, and then within the next second, I feel like I want to break up with him. I don’t know where my uncertainty is coming from. I had one relationship prior to this, but it was a very painful one that heavily affected me and sometimes I wonder if my problems stem from that. During that time of my life, I was at my lowest, and now I feel like it’s making it hard for me to not only depend on and commit to other people but also that my relationship feels unsatisfying to me – like there’s not enough happening. On one hand, I hated the drama and the way I was constantly playing along with my ex-boyfriend’s games, but on another hand, I wonder if it gave me something to do, if it made me feel like something was happening in my life. Nothing ever happens in my current relationship – by all means, it’s entirely normal, calm, unexciting. My boyfriend is a really good person, he’s one of the most considerate people I’ve ever met and sometimes I feel like he’s the one who is teaching me how it should feel to be loved. But more and more, I begin to feel incredibly lonely. I keep coming face to face with the fact that relationships (romantic or not) don’t last forever and that scares me. I have trouble connecting with him in the way that I want – I feel like I can’t tell him what’s really on my mind because it would annoy him. I feel guilty and lost and this has been on my mind since our relationship started in September. (From the USA)

There are several clues to what may be happening in your email. Thanks for writing to us and asking this important question. Finding yourself ambivalent in a relationship and wondering about it is the best way to begin to manage these feelings. Feeling like you want to break up and challenging your own thoughts is a very healthy thing to be doing.

The very fact that you feel the impulse to end the relationship but don’t and wonder why is what allows you to mature. The alternative, to simply act on the feelings of wanting to break up, would lead to highly unstable and dysregulating behavior. When we have a cross motivation to want to do something that we know isn’t exactly the right thing to do and challenge ourselves to feel the pressure to do it, while exerting self-control, we strengthen our capacity for emotional self-regulation. This is the single most important skill we can exercise for personal growth, our capacity to self-control and regulate.

The psyche isn’t so much concerned about good and bad as it is about familiar and unfamiliar. When we have an ongoing intimate relationship with someone these interactions become familiar. God, bad or indifferent they become the “norm” and it is what we come to expect. Think of it like this: If they were doing construction right outside the place you live for 10 days in a row with lots of jackhammers and construction noises your would grow accustom to the background noise. The first day you don’t hear it is when you would feel like something is off.

We are creatures of habit, and when that habit changes it can be very unsettling. The “drama” from your first relationship became the “norm.” Now that you have a good and loving boyfriend it is as if the jackhammers in your life have stopped. Even though it is a better situation we often have a longing for the jackhammers.

This is why you are bringing the drama back into your head. Thinking about breaking up is your way of creating a familiar static in your life. Since your boyfriend isn’t providing the drama you’re generating it by turning his stability and “teaching you how to feel loved,” into a familiar chaos. I had a patient once who said: “So you mean the circus moved from the outside to under the tent.” I thought it was a good description. When we don’t have the external drama in our lives we tend to create one inside. My best guess is that something like that is happening because there isn’t anything your boyfriend is doing that is a red flag or pushing you away. But the familiar turmoil may have your psyche doing it for you.

The work here is to dare to be happy. By this I mean take the time to tolerate the uncomfortable feeling of wanting to break up, but not acting on it. If you feel brave, you can even discuss this feeling with your boyfriend — not as a threat that you are going to break up, but as a way to deepen the intimacy between you. In good long term relationships being able to talk about our needs with each other (for things like space and time alone) can be a way of deepening our intimacy, while making sure we have enough alone time to build up the desire to reconnect with desire.

Wishing you patience and peace,
Dr. Dan
Proof Positive Blog @ PsychCentral